Artists

Molly Springfield

NY Arts Magazine (text)

Molly Springfield is a Washington DC–based artist.

I can’t remember the first time I read Proust—a fact that’s ironic on a number of levels. I’m pretty sure it was sometime during the summer of 2004, the summer after my first year of grad school. A friend who is something of a Proust evangelist forwarded me a Word document full of his favorite quotes from In Search of Lost Time after learning that I was interested in the relationship between objects and memory. Many of the quotes were from passages about art: “Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon.” My reaction to Proust was of the kind that every artist wants a reader or viewer to have. I thought: this is how I feel.

In delving into Proust, I became interested not only in his writings but in Proust’s own idiosyncratic, reclusive life and the history of In Search of Lost Time’s translation into English. The first English translation of the novel’s first volume, Swann’s Way, was by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and published in 1922. Like Proust, whose sole endeavor during the last years of his life was finishing his seven-volume novel, Moncrieff’s spent the last eight of his translating it. He died before finishing the seventh volume. Although Moncrieff took some creative license with his translation, adding superfluous embellishments to the text, his flowery, baroque interpretation was the standard for about 60 years. Excepting the revisions to Moncrieff by two different translators, there are only two other original English translations of Swann’s Way, one in 1982 by James Grieve and one in 2002 by Lydia Davis.

Each translator’s approach is different. Some adhere as closely as possible to the French; others imagine what Proust might have written had his native language been English. Moncrieff’s translation of the novel’s first sentence reads: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” Grieve’s: “Time was when I always went to bed early.” And Davis’: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” In either case, the translator is a mediator between reader and author. Unless one is able to read French, meaning is inevitably lost.

I am currently producing my own “translation,” entirely in the form of drawings, of the first chapter of Swann’s Way, pieced together using every English translation of the text. It will consist of 28 individual drawings of photocopies of open books, each drawing consisting of two sequential pages from the first chapter of the book. This patchwork of texts will produce overlapping gaps from page to page, resolving into an incomplete and not-fully-readable rendition of the original. The drawings will be installed side by side so that viewers can read my translation, with all of its breaks and intersections, from beginning to end.

There are parallels, I think, between the occasionally flawed process of translation and the novel’s central theme of memory and, also, the holes, static, and misperceptions that incomplete or lost memories can leave behind. For Proust’s narrator, memories have an intrinsic and sometimes transformative relationship with objects and places. But the narrator also values the examination of the minutest details of sensory experiences and dependence on habit and ritual, without which, “our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless.”

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